The evolution of the novel and short story in the 19th century brought us one of the greatest human sources of comfort, besides food and a nice hot bath. When someone tells me they are planning to “curl up with a good book”, I am filled with a sense of peace on their behalf – of quiet enjoyment, perhaps accompanied by a little soft music and the crackle of a fire.
Regular solitary time is becoming the norm for many. Many of us are already tired of the enjoyable inanity of Netflix and Amazon Prime and are ready for something to lose ourselves in completely.
In the 19th century, the novel boomed as literacy and leisure time increased. Novels were frequently published in weekly parts, one to three chapters at a time. They had to be long enough to fill the required number of issues, and interesting enough to ensure readers kept buying the magazine or periodical – or run the risk of being cancelled mid-series. It is this combination that makes them a great resource for times like today.
Human beings are designed to love stories. Our brains seek narratives to help us make sense of the world. We communicate using stories to exchange knowledge and gain understanding. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child” – through fiction we learn by imaginative experience.
Stories help us gain insight into things we cannot or should not experience. They also keep us safe – we tell each other cautionary tales all the time. So let’s do as our NHS doctors and nurses ask and learn from their stories of the virus – while also tucking ourselves away with some great old novels:
The Prisoner of Zenda
An exciting and funny adventure story about a man who goes on holiday and ends up as temporary king of Ruritania. In Anthony Hope’s 1984 book, The Prisoner of Zenda, London-born adventurer Rudolf Rassendyll is persuaded to pretend to be the king after the real king is kidnapped by his evil half-brother on the eve of his coronation. A distant relation of the royal family, Rudolf is the king’s spitting image.
Beautifully written and filled with energy, the story romps across the beautiful scenery of Ruritania to the mysterious castle of Zenda. Rudolf is one of the most vibrant and positive characters I have come across and will fill you with hope. But what will he do when he falls in love with the king’s beautiful fianceé?
Her Father’s Name
Florence Marryat’s 1876 novel tell of cross-dressing, swashbuckling adventuress Leona Lacoste’s journey from Rio de Janeiro to London to clear her father’s name. Unknown to her until his death, he has been in hiding in their Brazilian home, having escaped some scandal or crime in England. To get to the bottom of the mystery, Leona must stop at nothing.
Disguised as a man to make the journey possible in the 1870s, she proves herself onboard a ship in a dramatic duel and seduces the daughter of a rich industrialist. But what will she uncover about her unknown family history?
The Woman in White
The celebrated 1859 mystery by Wilkie Collins which launched a new type of story known as the sensation or enigma novel. Walter Hartright is startled by the sudden appearance of a mysterious woman dressed in white walking on the road to London late at night. She asks him for directions and he decides to see her safely to a cab.
On the way, he discovers that she is from the very town to which he is about the journey to start work as an art teacher. Little does he know how this mysterious woman and the family in Limeridge will change his life forever.
Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel may seem an unlikely choice but don’t let the TV and film adaptations fool you. This is a seriously good book. The adventurers who track and foil Count Dracula, led by Mina Harker and Abraham Van Helsing, are the epitome of organised and resourceful Victorian society.
This book is all about creating order from chaos: a reassuring ideal at the moment. Mina Harker’s way of life is doubly threatened by Dracula as he endangers both her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, whom he imprisons in his castle; and her best friend, Lucy Westenra, who is tormented by sleepwalking and mysterious illnesses.
Mina acts as the lynchpin for the five men who join together to defeat the count. The story that we are treated to is her collection of their accounts, creating a magnificent and lucid whole from diaries, cuttings, reports and letters. How will these rational beings thwart the supernatural power of the count?
In Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre fights for what she believes to be right. She stands up to those more powerful than herself, whether it be for her own rights or the good of others. Orphaned and rejected by her guardian aunt, Jane trains to become a teacher at a charity school and then becomes governess to Adele, the ward of the wealthy and seemingly misanthropic Mr Rochester.
Slowly and unwillingly she falls in love with her master but he has a certain secret in his attic. What will this determined woman do to save herself from the temptations of his love?
You’ll have noticed that I have stuck to books with happy endings, or at least tidy ones. There is no Thomas Hardy – you must take broadcaster Andy Hamilton’s advice and read Hardy’s novels backwards to get a happy ending. And no George Eliot, whose wonderfully complex characters are very real and intriguing but not often comforting.
Some are old, familiar favourites, others lesser known but equally enjoyable. The list is by no means complete. It is intended to be the beginning of a journey back to familiar friends and an exploration of new ones. They are shared with love and care in the hope they will make you feel a little better for their company.
Pam Lock, Lecturer, English Literature (Specialist in Victorian Literature and Alcohol), University of Bristol.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.